There comes a time when, in order to create a great mix, you have to create a few bad sounding instruments. It’s easy to overlook this when so many articles are all about “creating a great sounding guitar” or “perfecting your drum mix.” It comes down to asking the question “what should this instrument’s sound bring to the mix?”
Playing a Third Day song off their Offerings II album, I told the class to listen to the drums. After playing thirty seconds of the song, I stopped the CD and asked “how did the drums sound?” One of the students nailed it…”they sound flat.” Indeed they did sound rather lifeless on their own. However, when those drums were mixed along with the other instruments and vocals, the overall mix had a lot of power and emotion. How could that be the case?
How can one bad sound make something sound good?
It reminds me of the time I made a batch of mango salsa and forgot to add cilantro. Cilantro, on it’s own, doesn’t have a lot of flavor. However, it has the ability to bring other flavors together in a wonderful way. Once my wife reminded me about the cilantro, my salsa went from blah to WOW just by adding that otherwise plain-tasting herb.
In the same way, you have to think in terms of the whole of the mix and not the parts.
How to mix a bad instrument (How to have a good mix)
- Start with a good foundation by mixing drums and bass. Get the right sound of the drums that’s typically of the style of music you mix. Then add on the bass. At this point, you should volume-balance your instruments and vocals so they are roughly at the volumes they should be in the mix.
- Move from guitars to keyboards to vocals, asking “what should this instrument bring to the mix?” Then, treat that sound as necessary. Cut some highs from the acoustic guitar if the keyboard/piano is going to be playing melody in an upper octave range. Boost some of the keyboard mid’s if necessary. Each sound has a role to play and you want it to perform that role in the right way.
- Don’t try to perfect each sound. Where this comes into play is when you try to get each instrument to sound great on its own. The wrong mentality is “if they all sound great together, then the whole song will sound great.” See point #2 – mix in response to the answer of “what should this instrument / vocal bring to the mix.”
- Ask the question “what else needs to be done?” It could be that after running through all the instruments that you find the guitar isn’t quite fitting into the mix anymore. Tweak as necessary.
- PFL it. Put on your headphones and use the solo (PFL) button on your mixer to hear a single channel. Listen to how it sounds on its own. It might sound great. It might sound bad. Take off your headphones and listen to the whole. You just mixed a possibly bad sounding instrument into something great.
Next Steps: Listen to you favorite songs and listen to the parts. How do they sound apart? Why do you think they sound great together?